In association with Baltic Pride 2013 (22-28 July 2013), The Lithuania Tribune’s (TLT) Victoria Leigh spoke to the Lithuanian Gay League (LGL) volunteer co-ordinator Aliona Polujanova about Lithuania’s LGBT community, fighting for LGBT rights, enduring hate speech and prejudice, and garnering international support.
TLT: You have a lot of promotional badges in the Lithuanian language to promote the events of Baltic Pride this year, what is the meaning behind them?
“Don’t stand behind the fence” refers to the events of Baltic Pride 2010, because it looked more like a zoo than a March for Equality. It was in Vilnius, by the other side of the river, and it was fenced on both sides so nobody could get in or out, for protection purposes; however, one politician jumped over the fence. A lot of people were just observing, not protesting. This badge is symbolic of those events.
There is also “See what you haven’t seen before,” because a lot of people have never been to any Pride events before.
My favourite badge is “Why do we have to ask for permission?” With any other social group, it’s easy, you walk into the municipality buildings and you get the permission to hold events, which is not even asking, it is just automatically granted. We at LGL don’t get that.
“Hate is not a family value” is also an important one.
TLT: How do you find attitudes towards the LGBT community in Lithuania?
I care about LGBT situation as a whole, and not just the issue of homosexuality. It is unpleasant because everyone is talking about “gays, gays, gays,” and “homosexuality” in the best case scenario.
Even though we are LGL, we care deeply about other disenfranchised, marginalised groups such as bisexuals, and people in a transgender situation.
It makes things difficult when the press are interviewing me about the LGBT situation, and then the article comes out and they say you were talking about “homosexuals” all the time when you were referring to the LGBT community as a whole.
Sometimes I think they are doing this intentionally because it attracts people’s attention, and causes ‘scandal’ and ‘controversy’. Articles with the word ‘gay’ in the title sell really well, and we have a lot of hateful comments because viewers click on banners and they sell more ads through sites with such ‘controversial’ content.
Articles with the word ‘gay’ in the title sell really well, and we have a lot of hateful comments because viewers click on banners and they sell more ads through sites with such ‘controversial’ content.
TLT: How do these hurtful, hateful comments affect you and the staff at LGL, and how do you see them affecting the LGBT community?
I see this violent attitude in comments on articles, and you will see a lot of hate speech. In LGL we read comments sometimes which encourage people to take hold of firearms and commit murder because of gay people. We write to prosecutors saying these comments should be removed.
The Lithuanian criminal code has an article saying that encouraging people to commit acts of crime, murder, based on someone’s sexual orientation is illegal, so we definitely report them for that.
An LGL member of staff posted a photo of myself and two colleagues on social media, and one of them was gay, the other person was heterosexual. We were holding placards saying ‘we want Gediminas Street’ before the court decision on the matter, and we received a lot of ‘likes’.
However, one person commented he would like to “beat” us, and if he saw us in the street we’re “dead”, so that was on a personal level. We felt obligated to report it as a hate crime; we had to do something about it.
The law stipulates that if you say something like “Let’s arm ourselves, and kill all gay people,” only then can there be prosecutions. But if you say huge, hurtful sweeping generalisations like “all gay people are paedophiles,” or other hurtful, derogatory terms, then that’s fine and nothing will be done about it.
It shouldn’t be that way, and we shouldn’t have to read this stuff. How to not internalise that everyone is against you, and that you are wrong, and disgusting? We shouldn’t be okay with these attitudes.
TLT: Are people’s reactions in reality ever so malicious?
I have never seen real hate or negative reactions in person. For example, during Idaho Day on 17 May, LGL participated, and they had a special roofless bus which was decorated with rainbow flags and banners, and drove around, and they said they waved to people. People were not throwing stones, or being negative or anything, they were waving back, and nothing bad happened.
On Valentine’s Day, our volunteers were distributing postcards where they had images of homosexual couples kissing and saying things like “Love is beautiful”, with two boys, for example, and people were just receiving them, and no problem.
On Culture Night, staff were handing them out again and people were grateful, they said they were happy to receive them. Some took them, but then gave it back saying “Oh, I just understood it.” Nobody was violent, that was the worst reaction: that they just gave it back.
No one will start beating you to death, but with this political climate, openly homophobic speech will still continue. This is affecting a lot of people, along with unsupportive media coverage.
TLT: Have you experienced any negative media coverage working as part of LGL?
Recently, at the last court hearing a few weeks ago, a lady from a local TV station said she wanted to interview me, I said that’s ok and I gave her the interview.
She was asking really prejudiced questions, like sexual orientation can be compared to being like a paedophile, or to bestiality. Then she was asking “What would happen if a paedophile wanted to march with you at Baltic Pride, are you accepting everyone like that?”
I answered to all of her questions in a decent manner and when I saw the footage, she simply dubbed my answers with her own voice and interpretations of what I said, and did not show me speaking. They made me look like a fan-girl: [mockingly] “Here I am to support my gay and lesbian friends.”
No, this is a march for everyone who wants to join, and your sexuality doesn’t matter here – it’s about equality for all, for human rights, not just for gays and lesbians.
TLT: How did the last Pride march in Lithuania compare to this year’s in terms of getting permission to hold it?
The Ministry of the Interior is responsible for giving orders to the police, and it’s visible how they influence what the police do and say when we are in court [about where we can hold the march]. Police have to express doubt if they are able to protect us, walking down the street, because they don’t want ‘gays’ on the main street [LGL wish that the march is permitted to be held on Gediminas Street, which the government opposes].
It is very visible how they worked in 2010 compared to now because then it was a different political party responsible for the police. Then, they did a good job, they said we could have permission to march and have guaranteed security for everyone, and they never expressed any doubt or negativity. They did an amazing job and I wrote my master’s thesis on how it affects the community when one or more institutions [do something positive in the community], so it was great, but we didn’t have that this year.
TLT: What has the government said its concerns are for the march being held on Gediminas Street?
They are concerned that people living on and around Gediminas Street will throw stones from their windows and rooftops, and that someone might get hurt, so security is now a concern. But the first two court hearings said that security should not be a concern because the police have to guarantee the rights of the citizens to have a peaceful assembly, no matter which social group is marching.
The law of peaceful assembly has become slightly different. This year no one knew how it was supposed to work because a new legislation was introduced, so this is why we had the first two court hearings; the government just has to sign a piece of paper. We do not have to ask for permission according to law, in such specific terms.
However, the municipality signed a different paper with a different street, something we didn’t ask for, for the same small street where it was held in 2010. So we went to the court saying the municipality changed our request without our knowledge. We didn’t ask for this minor street, we asked for Gediminas Street.
We believe they did this deliberately, they said the proposed street is less crowded, so it would be supposedly easier to protect us from violence. The police said the same thing that the smaller street is easier to protect than Gediminas Street. It appeared very uncooperative.
TLT: What can Lithuania do to instil in itself more open-mindedness and tolerance of the LGBT community?
Tolerance has to come from both directions, people should stop being so passive, and start caring about their own rights. Lithuania apparently has a very small percentage of people that say that they know somebody who belongs to the LGBT community.
It can mean two things. First, that our society is very homophobic and people are scared of coming out, or that there are very few people in the LGBT community. We should do more and be active, because no one else will do it for you. You cannot just sit at home and expect that all your rights will be delivered to you.
Also, what politicians should realise is that LGBT are voting and paying taxes as well and deserve their human rights to be observed too. There is a lot of internalised homophobia in Lithuania, for example, when people hate themselves too for being gay, and they feel that they deserve this maltreatment. They don’t come out, they think they will hurt their family or get fired, but they don’t realise it shouldn’t be this way. You have to fight for your rights.
There is a lot of internalised homophobia in Lithuania, for example, when people hate themselves too for being gay, and they feel that they deserve this maltreatment. They don’t come out, they think they will hurt their family or get fired, but they don’t realise it shouldn’t be this way.
Our community is very passive about this. If you come out, you feel better with yourself, you’re at peace and can be with friends and family who like and support you for who you are. If some supposed friends don’t like that you’re gay, bisexual or transgender well so be it. Why would you want to know them in the first place?
TLT: Does Baltic Pride receive much in the way of international support and attention?
Here in Vilnius, we have a lot of contacts with international organisations such as Amnesty International.
Amnesty International Denmark contributes a lot to Baltic Pride, they are one of our partners and if you have ever worked with Amnesty you would be impressed by what they do. They have a huge network across the whole world, and they do amazing advocacy work and they raise money and campaign, collecting signatures, and they bring a lot of attention to causes like this.
In other countries, people listen to Amnesty and address them for opinions on human rights issues, and it’s something that has a value. In Lithuania, most people don’t even know what Amnesty International even is, and our politicians wouldn’t even consider Amnesty’s opinion because it’s just a low-level NGO to them.
TLT: Aside from the march, what other plans does Baltic Pride have for the upcoming week?
We have some events going on at the Contemporary Arts Centre. We have an exhibition to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Lithuania decriminalising the act of homosexual sex, and we will exhibit work of LGBT artists and have historical footage and press coverage, showing how LGBT rights developed over the past 20 years.
We will also have poetry readings with Eileen Myles and Queer Zine Fair. There will be a workshop and discussions on how to create your own Zine, and lots of people from different countries already sent theirs Zines in, even from Australia.
TLT: Do you think the recent US changes in legislation are a step forward for the LGBT community in terms of gay marriage?
It’s a cherry on the cake, but it’s not the whole cake. Of course, I don’t want to undervalue the importance of marriage for people, but I think there are a lot more serious issues than marriage at stake. Not everybody wants to get married and to fight for traditional things like marriage and kids, as it makes LGBT couples sound like they have the same issues as heterosexual couples, and it’s not the case.
The most important thing for me is just to be myself and not be treated badly. That involves looking however I want to look, and having a job where I don’t have to listen to hate speech just for being a part of the LGBT community.
Baltic Pride events are being held in Vilnius from 22-28 July 2013. Activities during the week-long event include workshops, an exhibition about the LGBT movement in Lithuania, a film festival and a Zine festival culminating in the March for Equality.
For more information on Baltic Pride 2013 events, go to http://www.lgl.lt/en/lgl/baltic-pride-2013/
For more information about LGL, go to http://www.lgl.lt/